Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s smile was better than a trophy

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. grimaced briefly, revealing just how tough it is to compete at Darlington Raceway. Add that this was his lone NASCAR start of the year and the challenge was even greater.

“It wasn’t a storybook win or anything like that,” Earnhardt said on pit road after placing sixth (he would be scored fifth after Denny Hamlin’s winning car failed inspection and was disqualified).

But then a smile emerged.

“It just feels good to be competitive,” said Earnhardt, who returns to his regular NBC Sports duties for Sunday’s broadcast of the Southern 500. “It feels good that everybody has a smile on their face.”

He then shared a story about the weekend, one of many that made this a special time to him. Earnhardt talked about working with his cousin, Danny Earnhardt, as his car chief this weekend.

“He (told) me during practice, “Man, it would be cool if me and you could race together every single week,” Earnhardt said as his smile widened.

So, while it wasn’t a win, Saturday’s Xfinity race still was something Earnhardt could walk away from feeling good.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. races under Chase Briscoe during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

He’s already said he would like to run in the Xfinity race next March at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of his final Cup start in 2017 — if Hellmann’s exercises the option on its contract to sponsor him in a race next year.

But even beyond that, how much longer can Earnhardt go running one national series race a year and remain competitive?

“I picked the hardest track,” Earnhardt said after wiping his brow.

“So maybe if I go someplace a little easier, I can do it a few more years. It’s really however long Hellmann’s want to do it. I don’t want to do more than one a year. I don’t think I do. I’ll do one a year until I’m wasting my time and everybody else’s. I feel like I did a good job today and I didn’t really feel like I wasted my team’s time. As long as I don’t feel like I don’t belong in there, I’ll keep doing it.”

The fans appreciated his effort, giving him the loudest cheers before and after the race.

“He’s the people’s champ,” Hamlin said. “I think a lot of Dale and Amy. I’m glad he still gets to play and have fun. I’d imagine if I had a race team, I’d want to do the same thing. I don’t know if I would choose Darlington if I was him, it’s a tough track. Goodness, it’s a big test. He ran fine out there. All the restarts, it didn’t look like he was timid at all on any of them. So, hopefully, he continues to run one or two here and there.”

Even for as challenging as Darlington was, Earnhardt enjoyed his day because he ran well. 

Earnhardt was reunited with longtime spotter T.J. Majors and after Earnhardt finished seventh in stage two, Majors asked his driver if he was having fun.

Earnhardt replied with an enthusiastic “Yeah, I’m having fun.”

This wasn’t a joyride, though. He spent part of his day racing Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe for position. After crossing the finish line, Earnhardt noted they could have used more grip before thanking his team for its effort.

For all the fun. realization hit Earnhardt.

“About halfway through the race, I was starting to remember all the reasons why I don’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s hot. It’s hard. It’s hard.

“What I’m really reminded of when I get to do these races is just how much we ought to respect the drivers that do it every single week because it is so hard. Not just driving the race but all the grind throughout the week, testing, debriefs, the study, watching races and film, there’s so much to it and it starts to pop in my head and I remember why I’m glad I’m not in that grind anymore. But just going practicing, qualifying and running the race, that’s fun.”

And then Earnhardt grinned.

While there was no trophy to take home, that smile showed what Saturday meant to Earnhardt.

Xfinity playoff grid after Indianapolis

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Chase Briscoe‘s continued dominance of the Xfinity Series over the weekend on the Indianapolis road course ensured no additional drivers locked themselves into the 12-driver playoff field.

Through 13 races, Briscoe and four other drivers have qualified for the playoffs via race wins. Briscoe, who has five race wins, leads the field with 28 playoff points.

The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Riley Herbst (+19 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+6 points).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-6), Alex Labbe (-32), Jeremy Clements (-49) and Josh Williams (-57).

Cup Series playoff grid after Brickyard 400

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With Kevin Harvick‘s victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400, no additional drivers locked themselves into the Cup Series playoff field.

But there was some movement at the bottom of the playoff grid as drivers jockey to make the 16-car field.

After he missed the race due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Jimmie Johnson fell from 12th to 15th on the grid. He’s now 36 points above the cutline.

Matt DiBenedetto earned stage points in each stage before finishing 19th. He moved from 14th to 12th in the standings.

After earning stage points in both stages Sunday, Austin Dillon has cracked the top 16, moving up one spot. He has a six-point advantage over Erik Jones, who crashed out of Sunday’s race and had a 14-point advantage over Dillon entering the weekend.

With his ninth-place finish Sunday, Bubba Wallace is now within reach of the top 16. He sits at 19th, 42 points back from 16th.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Oval or road course? Cup drivers address future of Brickyard 400

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For 27 years, the Cup Series has competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with its annual Brickyard 400. All 27 of those races have been run exclusively on the track’s traditional 2.5-mile oval.

But following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the track’s 2.4-mile, 14-turn road course, an obvious question has been raised:

Should the Brickyard 400 remain on the oval, where passing is made difficult due to a combination of the rules package and the design of the track, or should moving it to the road course be considered?

“I would never vote for that,” Kevin Harvick declared last week before he won his third Brickyard 400 on Sunday. “I love everything about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For me it is all about the oval … racing on the traditional track because for me I am kind of old school and I think that the Cup cars belong and really started the Brickyard 400.

“That was kind of what it was always meant to be, that iconic one-off, just the Cup cars event. I think with the Xfinity cars and the trucks and (ARCA Menards) cars and all the things that used to race at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park), it was a great event. Hopefully the road course can kind of take that role that IRP used to have and be able to bring the Indy cars and NASCAR together to add to that event at the Speedway. For me personally, I would never vote for the Cup cars to not run on the oval.”

Harvick is joined in that camp by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Aric Almirola, who finished third in Sunday’s race for his first top five and top-10 finish at Indy.

“I hope that we never stop running the oval,” Almirola said. “I just think it’s one of these places that regardless if it puts on the greatest race or not, it’s historic. It’s just a special place. It’s hard to explain when you don’t grow up a racer and you don’t aspire to come to race at Indy.

“But for me, I grew up watching stock car racing and dirt sprint car racing. I grew up watching Thursday Night Thunder, seeing so many guys go from USAC racing and sprint car racing to racing at Indy. It’s something I’ve always kept up with, always dreamed about getting the opportunity to race here. I get that opportunity now.”

Matt Kenseth, who finished second Sunday in his 20th Brickyard 400, said the Cup Series “should be” on the oval. But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is open to the idea of Cup using the road course in some manner.

 “I think it’s one of those racetracks that we need to race at as long as we can,” Kenseth said of the oval. “It’s arguably the most famous speedway in the world, or one of them.

“To be able to race on the ovals with the Cup cars, which is the highest form of stock car racing here, we should be on the big track as well. I don’t think it would be bad to maybe test the road course and look into it, maybe do a second race on a road course, kind of like the IndyCars did this week.

“I really do think the Brickyard 400 has a lot of prestige. It’s not a southern race, but similar to the Southern 500, races like that. I think there’s a few of those races you sure would hate to see disappear.”

Crew chief describes ‘frightening’ scene on pit road at Indy

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Crew chief Todd Gordon said it was “frightening” to see rear tire changer Zach Price hit on pit road and then try to scoot away from cars during Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Price, who changes tires for Ryan Blaney’s team, was injured when he was struck by Brennan Poole’s car during a melee near the entrance of pit road early in the race.

Gordon, speaking Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, said indications are that Price’s injury was a “fracture someplace in the knee area.”

Price was treated and released from an Indianapolis hospital on Sunday night and traveled home with the team. Gordon said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Price was scheduled to see a doctor Monday.

“Just hope to get him back and get him back going again and healthy,” Gordon said.

Gordon described what he saw as cars made contact.

“A really frightening moment for me,” he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I was really terrorized when I saw (Price) drag himself back across the pit box arms only for a while there. As the situation kind of progressed and the medical staff was working with him, I could see in his face he was better off than I thought he was to start with.

“Fortunate that the guys got up and got at least in the air. The jackman (Graham Stoddard) got on top of the car. Just one of those terrible situations. I felt like those accidents happened mid-pit road. That’s why I picked way back there to be behind it.”

Said Justin Allgaier, who was involved in the accident on pit road that led to six cars eventually being eliminated:  “The No. 15 (Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got the gentleman on (Blaney’s pit crew) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into.”

Indianapolis’ pit road is the most narrow of all the tracks the Cup Series races. The two travel lanes are 24 feet wide. The pit stall for each team is 15 feet wide.